Train to Pakistan, originally published in 1956, is not a very good book, but quite enjoyable much of the time. Khushwant Singh, less than ten years after Partition, in 1947, wrote a novel of less than 200 pages and still managed to create what’s probably best described as an uneven mess. Ideas, allusions, characters and bits and pieces of story float all over the book. There’s no denying that Singh, who has since become a famous public figure and intellectual in India, prefers to lecture rather than write a fully coherent novel. This is not to say, however, that Train to Pakistan is a bad book. There is much in it that is successful, much that is interesting and even engrossing, especially in the first half of the book, which is far more compellingly told than anything in the second half. In the latter half we flounder unhappily through Singh’s feeble attempts to hold all strands of his story together to deliver what is clearly meant to be a moving and inspiring ending to a book that isn’t shy about its intent to present the reader not just (or even primarily) with a convincing story, but with a convincing reading of history. This is one of the reasons why the book is sometimes hard to read or assess for someone (like me) who may not be knowledgeable about Indian political debates in the 1950s and 60s (at all). It’s hard to tell what is a distortion and what is the goal, or: the target, of that distortion or presentation. In the absence of that in-depth knowledge, readings (such as mine) may fall short of properly assessing the power of tropes and images used by Singh.
Nevertheless, the most important trope, the basic constellation of the book seems clear, even more so since it’s a widely used topos in world literature. Singh’s novel is set in Mano Majra, a village in the Punjab, a border region between Pakistan and India, shared by both countries. There are five major rivers in the region, one of which is the Sutlej, “half a mile“ from Mano Majra. Information like this allows us to situate the village in the province of Punjab (the region Punjab consists of several provinces, one of which is also called Punjab), which is relevant, since Punjab is an Indian province that is predominantly Sikh, as far as ethnicity and religion is concerned, and it is the conflict between Sikhs and Muslims in the year of the partition that forms the novel’s main impetus. Most of the characters onTrain to Pakistan are, in fact, Sikh or Muslim. The roles of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus within the novel form what appears to be a central subtext to its narrative, which employs the village as a metaphor to discuss the fate of a whole nation or nationality. It’s a well-worn, fairly common construction, one that every reader can be relied upon to recognize, and thus perfectly suited for didactic purposes. It’s also the reason why Singh’s characters are paper-thin, with just enough depth to fill out the roles assigned to them. These roles are already visible in this early description of the village Mano Majra is a tiny place. It has only three brick buildings, one of which is the home of the moneylender Lala Ram Lal. The other two are the Sikh temple and the mosque. The three brick buildings enclose a triangular common with a large peepul tree in the middle. (…) There are only about 70 families and Lala Ram Lal’s is the only Hindu family. The other are Sikhs and Muslims, about equal in number. The Sikhs own all the land around the village; the Muslims are tenants and share all the tilling with the owners. As schematic as this description of the village is, so is the rest of Train to Pakistan‘s construction, including the sentimental love story threaded through it. We quickly realize that realism can’t be expected from this book, that its stakes and ambitions are higher than that. Oddly enough, once the allegorical nature of much of the book’s narrative is established, Singh tries to reverse the process in the second half, piling on geographical and...
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